Home > Uncategorized > ASSK, Don’t Tell: Aung San Suu Kyi Messaging Cautious Engagement

ASSK, Don’t Tell: Aung San Suu Kyi Messaging Cautious Engagement

December 1, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Ernie Bower, Senior Adviser and Director, Southeast Asia Program, CSIS

Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) is unquestionably the only legitimately elected leader of Burma. Unfortunately, that election did not happen this past November 7, it took place in 1990. At least in part to divert international attention from the process that pretended to be elections last month, the military junta decided to release ASSK. This has created an important opportunity for the world to hear what she thinks directly.

Her guidance to date is clearly cautious, but it does suggest a departure from her past approach. She has gone on the record saying that she does not oppose the U.S. Government engaging the junta to work for change, as long as they “are not too optimistic.” She is still thinking through sanctions: “We will review the matter on sanctions and only on the grounds of whether or not the sanctions are hurting the people, and whether people have sound reasons to think they have been hurt by the sanctions.” She also warned the E.U. not to allow itself to be divided by the junta and to speak with one voice in condemning the latest elections. She is crystal clear on the point that the November elections were illegitimate, but there she also communicates hope for change from within, as she is moving to re-register the National League for Democracy (NLD).

The Obama Administration used an engagement strategy with Burma to seek progress on key issues ranging from political space to cooperation on non-proliferation. To date, it has gotten nothing in return on those counts. However, the paradigm shift did allow the U.S. to engage ASEAN by signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) and initiate the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting. These were key steps to getting out having the tail (Burma) wag the dog (U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia).

One of her most recent messages was a video-taped message to Foreign Policy on the occasion on ASSK’s selection as one of 100 top foreign policy thinkers. ASSK seems to be recommending change from within – focusing on changing “values” as opposed to her earlier messages seeking “regime change.” It is hard to know if her new signals are linked in some way to a deal struck to secure her long overdue release, or if this is a new approach based on failed earlier attempts.

ASSK’s guidance may have real impact on U.S. and other countries’ policies toward Burma. They are an important input, along with other considerations such as Burma’s alleged link to North Korea on developing nuclear capabilities. In that context, China may be learning lessons from the seemingly uncontrollable Kims of Pyongyang, and perhaps it will decide to encourage a more sustainable path for its buffer state and channel to the Andaman Sea. Could that formulation include representative government?

Burma is not North Korea: it has viable options for change and evolution. Policy makers should watch carefully for opportunities to encourage the opening of political space, but also be prepared to be decisive and firm, including the use of new sanctions as outlined in the JADE Act, if the regime continues its crack down on political parties, ethnic groups and the apparent pursuit of nuclear weapon capabilities.

Photo by Stephen Brookes, used under a Creative Commons license.

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  1. Sit Aung
    December 28, 2010 at 12:44 AM

    A great article but I would like to correct one mistake. ASSK was not an elected in 1990 election. She was under house arrest that time and her party won landslide in election.

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